Cato Unbound has an excellent piece by Theodore Dalrymple asking is Old Europe doomed? Dalrymple raises a very interesting point about the nature of contemporary European society:
The principal motor of Europe’s current decline is, in my view, its obsession with social security, which has created rigid social and economic systems that are extremely resistant to change. And this obsession with social security is in turn connected with a fear of the future: for the future has now brought Europe catastrophe and relative decline for more than a century.
What exactly is it that Europeans fear, given that their decline has been accompanied by an unprecedented increase in absolute material well-being? An open economy holds out more threat to them than promise: they believe that the outside world will bring them not trade and wealth, but unemployment and a loss of comfort. They therefore are inclined to retire into their shell and succumb to protectionist temptation, both internally with regard to the job market, and externally with regard to other nations. And the more those other nations advance relative to themselves, the more necessary does protection seem to them. A vicious circle is thus set up.
In the process of course, the state is either granted or arrogates to itself (or, of course, both) ever-greater powers. A bureaucratic monster is created that takes on a life of its own, that is not only uneconomic but anti-economic, and that can be reformed only at the cost of social unrest that politicians naturally wish to avoid. Inertia intermittently punctuated by explosion is therefore the most likely outcome.
Security and dynamism are in tension with each other. In order to achieve, one has to surrender an amount of security – success by nature requires a willingness to take risks and a willingness to accept a certain amount of failure. The US has a completely different sense of élan than Europe – we’re far less risk averse, far more entrepreneurial, and far less willing to settle into a comfortable stasis. Part of this is almost certainly due to the fact that for two and a half centuries the free-thinkers of Europe left to come here due to famine, persecution, and lack of opportunities at home. Decades of “brain drain” combined with some of the most devastating warfare in human history can have profound effects on a culture.
At the same time, Europe is struggling to define itself in the 21st Century. The attempt to create a pan-European consciousness is failing as the EU Constitution suffered a major defeat. European society is facing a major threat from Muslim immigrants who do not share the values of the rest of Europe. Birth rates across Old Europe have plummeted to below replacement levels. By the end of this century, should demographic trends continue, Europe will no longer exist. Granted, demographic trends tend not to continue along the same pattern forever – 1906 and 2006 might as well be light-years apart, but the decline of Europe should worry policymakers and citizens on both sides of the Atlantic.
What Europe lacks is what the ancient Greeks called thumos – a term which implies passion, spiritedness, but also a willingness to fight for one’s beliefs. The great Greek heroes will filled with thumos. Europe has lost that sense of passion, that sense of daring, that quality of thumos that pushes a culture away from stasis. The European social experiment is one in which the state provides for all, and individual initiative and the entrepreneurial spirit is systematically discounted. Why work hard when advancement is difficult if not impossible to achieve? How can an economy assimilate new workers when strict labor laws make it difficult, if not impossible to shed excess capacity when times are tight? The “social safety net” in Europe has become a snare in which the values that advance a society have become forgotten. F.A. Hayek spoke of “the road to serfdom” and Europe is on the brink of become a kind of feudal society in which the landed gentry from been replaced by the nomenklatura of the European political elite. High positions in the French government are almost exclusively reserved to graduates of the prestigious École National d’Administration – a school that would be like if Harvard and Yale merged into one massive training ground for the ruling class. The énarques control the politics of France, and they have every interest in keeping things in a comfortable stasis. If the concept of thumos is taught there, it’s lessons go unlearned.
The true lesson of Europe’s gradual decline is in understanding that fundamental tension between a “social safety net” and upward mobility, between thumos and stasis, between the entrepreneurial spirit and slow decline. The essential fallacy of Europe is in believing that you can have it all, a generous social “safety net” and a dynamic economy, masses of Muslim immigrants and multiculturalism, a post-modern society and societal cohesion. All of these things are in tension with each other at a fundamental level, and European society is failing to deal with these tensions, preferring to revel in the comfortable illusion that their socialized medicine and unsustainable pensions somehow cover up for their crumbling culture and society.
Arthur Toynbee once observed that “Civilizations die from suicide, not murder.” Europe is slowly but surely committing societal suicide. A society is held together by shared traditions, social mores, and a common sense of identity. In the UK, more people attend Friday prayers at mosques than Sunday services in cathedrals. The increasingly large Muslim immigrant population in Europe no longer shares the same sense of cultural identity as the rest of the population. The most fundamental building block of society is the family, and Europeans are having fewer children and fewer families. Post-colonial guilt has become a form of multicultural nihilism which rejects the values of thumos in favor of an attitude of cultural surrender.
Europe may not be doomed, but these trends continue to push Europe farther and farther down the road to cultural collapse. Thankfully the murder of Theo Van Gogh, the riots across France, and the row over the Danish cartoons depicting Mohammed have caused some to wake up to the problem, but it remains to be seen if the cultural and political elites in Europe are sufficient cognizant of the magnitude of the problem.
Within my generation’s lifetime, the birthplace of Western civilization could be no more than a museum piece, a ruin of a once great and vibrant civilization like the Roman remains scattered across the continent. If that happens, it would be a tragedy beyond comprehension. If Europe is to survive as a cultural, political, and economic entity, they must recapture some of that thumos, they must be willing to defend and maintain the shared values of their civilization. Elsewise, Europe will be just another civilization whose day has come and gone. Europe deserves better than that, and it is not yet too late for this course of decline to be arrested.